To be in exile to be displaced from one's country of origin
and upbringing to be an immigrant —the experience of over
185 million people in the world, on a conservative estimate—is
a wrench perhaps comparable in impact to that of war, long-term
hunger or imprisonment.
For me to be in exile, to
be an immigrant is like being "NOISE" in musical context.
Instead of a person creatively carrying
over meanings, across accepted borders of sense, a person is here
bodily pushed over borders by forces beyond his or her control.
In "NOISE MUSIC"
performances aural elements are sprinting toward each other from
opposite far ends of the aural space and are colliding in a direct,
violent impact. This sound of crashing aural elements is "NOISE
MUSIC". While sound connotes nothing more than the sense
data of hearing, "NOISE MUSIC", from the Latin nausea,
suggests an unpleasant disturbance, confusion, or interference
baldly lacking any musical quality and that in sociological terms
for me is "EXILE".
Creating this sense of feeling alien
and out of place, a widespread unease sometimes deepening into
despair, is built-in the experience of modernity. Marx, found
the root of alienation in the labor process. The acute critic
of the first modern mass democracy, Thoreau, postulated that most
people live lives of quiet desperation, but the sentiment is most
often articulated by and about intellectuals, from Nietzsche to
Sartre to Said.
generates straightaway auditory disturbance, panic and fear, we
hear something like the squeal of a dentist's suction straw, the
collision of helicopters, or the thermonuclear roar of the sun's
core. It sounds as if the machines of music have begun to digest
the earth, and we listen to the garbage disposal run as nature
is ground in technology's gizzard. And this fear is similar to
the usual reaction to the "other", to the immigrant.
"The metaphor, 'all modern
thinkers are exiles', might tend rather to conceal the brute fact
of bodies not only psychically but physically in exile, and the
new ways of feeling, thinking, and living that this brings; to
elide the experience of working and downtrodden people. The metaphor
is of Jewish/Christian origin, evoking the expulsion from Eden;
but "what is truly horrendous: that exile is irremediably
secular and unbearably historical; that it is produced by human
beings for other human beings". Edward
Said, 'Reflections on Exile', Granta 13, 1984, p. 160; reprinted
in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Cambridge, ma 2000.
One cannot listen to an
entire composition without suffering effects: muscles twitch,
nerves fray, the heart races, and cognition hits a wall. Unlike
artists who pride themselves on rupturing eardrums with low frequencies
at high volumes, or who induce fear and disgust through extended
samples of a rape beneath viscous hardcore "NOISE MUSIC"
is not attacking our physical or moral limits. Instead, it presents
the simple horror of extreme complexity. Here music is sacrificed
to the art of aural agitation.
"Most people are principally
aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware
of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an
awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that--to borrow
a phrase from music--is contrapuntal. For an exile, habits of
life, expression, or activity in the new environment inevitably
occur against the memory of these things in another environment.
Thus both the new and the old environment are vivid, actual, occurring
together contrapuntally. ... There is a unique pleasure in this
sort of apprehension." Edward Said,
"The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile,"
Harper's Magazine (September, 1984), 269: pp. 49-55, p. 35.
How can we make sense of
this situation? Why must music now risk its own identity in order
to strike a critical chord with its culture? What social and aesthetic
forces are at work behind the back of this seemingly anti-social
and anti-aesthetic phenomenon? Does the "unlistenability"
of "NOISE MUSIC" mark a kinship with the now distant
and inaudible shock of the avant-garde music? Is dissonance even
possible in our age, and what does dissonance, in its achievement
or failure, press us to confront? Just as the music of Jimi Hendrix
and the Sex Pistols that once resembled alternative forms of life
now find homes in soft drink and car commercials, will these unbearable
"NOISE MUSIC" also take root in the status quo? Have
"The pattern that sets the
course for the intellectual as outsider is best exemplified by
the condition of exile, the state of never being fully adjusted,
always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by
natives … Exile for the intellectual in this metaphysical
sense is restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and
unsettling others. You cannot go back to some earlier and perhaps
more stable condition of being at home; and, alas, you can never
fully arrive, be at one in your new home or situation." Edward
Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), p. 39.
could only become meaningful and articulate at a time when thought
and language have become somehow inarticulate. As T.W. Adorno's
stipulates, that we live in an abstract and instrumental world,
where each object we encounter holds meaning only as 1) a representative
of the class to which it belongs and 2) a tool for our use.
Much of the veracity of Adorno's theory of art lies in its ability
to explain the cultural tension played out in the conflicting
responses to "NOISE MUSIC".
"The exile knows that in a
secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders
and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory,
can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason
or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought
and experience". Said, 'Reflections
on Exile', p. 170.
As soon as we encounter
"NOISE MUSIC", we are engaged in a struggle to make
some sense of what we hear. Unable to categorize the stimulus
within any known musical genre, incapable of interpreting or recognizing
sounds, and generally bereft of aesthetic orientation, the work
commands our full attention. With our ear tuned and focused to
hunt out some structure and reason in the work, micrologics emerge,
and like Schoenberg and Berg's rigid expressionistic compositions
under the twelve-tone system, the work's elaborate and exact structure
is not readily apparent. Sometimes "NOISE MUSIC" breaks
for a few seconds, as if the blinds to the horror were closed
for a moment, to reveal the tinkling of wind chimes. Like the
vertical zips in Barnett Newman's otherwise monochrome paintings
that mark the very origins of the universe, such a quiet landmark
amidst this otherwise undifferentiated sonic topography becomes
a potential site for infinite meaning. We're intrigued: if there's
some form, there must be more. Reconciliation, it would seem,
must follow somewhere in the wake of structure.
The metaphor of intellectual as
exile remains highly ambiguous. On the one hand, the chosen identity
of outsider suggests a welcome break with conformity: 'to stand
away from "home" in order to look at it with the exile's
detachment' is a particular instance of what Brecht calls the
'estrangement effect', of seeing all as strange unless sanctioned
by reasoned values. This involves seeing things not simply as
they are, but 'as they have come to be that way: contingent, not
inevitable . . . the result of a series of historical choices
made by human beings'. And indeed Said's insistence that by a
creative use of displaced personhood the intellectual can become
a well-informed critic in the borderlands between the poorer and
richer sections of the world, on 'both sides of the imperial divide',
seems to me rather Brechtian and right. In that case, forced displacement
becomes 'a model for the intellectual who is tempted, and even
beset and overwhelmed, by the rewards of accommodation, yea-saying,
settling in'. Said, 'Reflections on Exile',
p. 170; 'Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals', Grand
Street 12.3, 1993, pp. 122–4; Culture and Imperialism, New
York 1993, p. xxvii.
The most disturbing aspect
of "NOISE MUSIC" must be its technical perfection. Despite
the prima facie appearance of chaos, "NOISE MUSIC" abides
by the strictest ordering principles. When a "NOISE MUSIC"
fragment takes hold of musical form or trope, they are compulsively
consistent. With the amplifiers whole power and register a "NOISE
MUSIC" pieces fit together like a massive mechanical contraption
that does not accomplish anything. " We have an exactly calculated
and efficient piece serving no end, and thus we see the image
of modern life: the increasing efficiency of instrumental rationality
without a meaningful end in sight. Thus "NOISE MUSIC"
exemplifies Thoreau's description of the industrial revolution
as "an improved means to an unimproved ends."
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Beacon
Exile, far from being the fate of
nearly forgotten unfortunates . . . becomes something closer to
a norm, an experience of crossing boundaries and charting new
territories in defiance of the classical canonic enclosures, however
much its loss and sadness should be acknowledged and registered.
Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. 317.
Our attention funnels into
the work's singular moments, and once we realize the "NOISE
MUSIC" is not here to fulfill a macro-structural objective,
it becomes something that ends in itself. Instead of singular
"NOISE" existing for the abstract achievements of the
whole, the whole is composed to throw us back onto the horns of
the "NOISE". Now very much unlike Beethoven, whose dissonance
always serves a higher abstract order, here the very material
of composition steals the show. The singular, particular, and
visceral "NOISE" fully consumes us. Every "NOISE"
in the music takes on a specifically meaning, and no clear hierarchy
exists between them. Each "NOISE" in the music, just
as Adorno described each sentence of Aesthetic Theory, is equally
close to the center. Yet equality does not slip into interchangeability,
for each "NOISE" in the music remains painfully particular.
Thus we find a possible exemption to Adorno's claim that the "history
of music at least since Haydn is the history of fungibility: that
nothing is in-itself and that everything is only in relation to
Liberation as an intellectual mission,
born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and
ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established,
and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered,
and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation is today the migrant,
and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and the artist
in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms,
between homes, and between languages. Said,
Culture and Imperialism, pp. 332–3.
The "critical power
of art" (in this case "NOISE MUSIC") is a somatic
experience that "hits you in the gut" and "resists
predatory reason, precisely because it can't be stomached, gobbled
up by the mind." "If experience leaves a non-digestible
residue that won't go away," "that is food for critical
cognition." Susan Buck-Morss,
"Aesthetics After the End of Art: Interview with Grant Kester,"
Art Journal 56 (1997): 38.
"Those who find their homeland
sweet are still tender beginners; those to whom every soil is
as their native one are already strong; but those who are perfect
are the ones to whom the entire world is as a foreign land."
Hugo of St. Victor (1097-1141)
"Philosophy says what
art cannot say, although it is art alone which is able to say
it; by not saying it." Theodor
Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge,
1984), 107; see also Bernstein, The Fate of Art, 244.